Texas Tech walked out of the Sprint Center and into a world of uncertainty on Thursday afternoon, its season over after a 91-63 loss to Kansas in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament.
The Red Raiders (11-20), who completed a fourth consecutive season with at least 19 losses, tried to play the role of giant killers coming off an emotional first-round win against West Virginia. But Tech didn’t have enough stones to hurl at the mighty Jayhawks (27-5).
Ben McLemore played like the future NBA lottery pick he is, pouring in a game-high 24 points, including 12 of Kansas’ first 15.
“Their team played great,” Tech coach Chris Walker said. “They’ll probably be a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) and be competing for another Final Four.”
Walker has competed for the last 5 1/2 months with an interim label for a full-time job he hopes he has done enough to earn. But his first comments immediately following the game were directed, with appreciation, for a group of players he said he is thankful to have coached this season.
“Coming back, playing back‑to‑back days, proud of the way the team played,” he said. “And I think going forward as we battle and as we continue to move things forward, I think the guys that played in that game today did a lot about establishing how Texas Tech basketball plays, and I think that our fan base can be proud of what we’re looking to establish.”
Just 10 days after producing little fight against these Jayhawks up the road at Allen Fieldhouse, Tech didn’t back down early. After McLemore paced Kansas to an early 15-2 lead, the Red Raiders whittled the deficit to two, 27-25, on a Jordan Tolbert with layup with 3:11 to go in the first half.
Tech faced a 34-25 deficit at the half Thursday after trailing by 25 at that point in the last meeting en route to a 37-point loss.
But the whole Thursday grew deeper in a hurry thanks to McLemore. The freshman sensation, who had been quiet in two previous game against Tech, hit two 3-pointers to begin the second half as part of a 14-4 run that put an end to Tech’s dreams of running the table in this tournament.
“Ben helped us out a lot,” Kansas forward Jeff Withey said. “He gave us a lot of energy with his scoring.”
Kansas shot a season-best 66 percent, including a scorching 69.2 clip in the second half.
“That’s why they are who they are,” Walker said.
Dejan Kravic, who hit a dramatic buzzer-beater to top the Mountaineeers, put together another impressive performance with 21 points. Dusty Hannahs scored 15 points — he made three of four 3-pointers — and Tolbert chipped in 13 for Tech, which has still never beat Kansas outside of Lubbock.
Kravic, the junior who redshirted a season ago, seemed to find a different gear this week.
“Just being confident and being physically and mentally tough,” Kravic said. “That’s really it. That’s kind of what’s been holding this team back, what’s been holding me back. Just being physical.”
But none of that was enough to slow Kansas, the squad that was won nine straight Big 12 regular-season titles and is trying to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
What happens next for the Red Raiders is unclear. Will Tech hire interim coach Chris Walker as the full-time coach? Or does Kirby Hocutt, who has said Walker will be part of the search process, chart a different path for this program?
There has been no announced timetable for such a decision, but there’s no doubt all involved are eager to bring some stability to a program that has suffered through turbulent waters the last two years.
Hocutt said after the game he wants the process of finding the next permanent coach to move forward “as expeditiously as possible,” but he stressed the magnitude at stake in selecting the right man for the job.
“We’ve got to get this right,” Hocutt said. “We’ve got to take our time to get it right. That being said, we’re going to look for the best candidate forward. That’s a process I hope can move as expeditiously as possible. We’re planning for that to be the case. Chris Walker will be a part of that process. He’s earned the right to be a part of this. He’s done an unbelievable job with a difficult set of circumstances.
“We’ll move as quickly as we can. At the same time, there’s probably never been a more important decision for Texas Tech basketball than what we face right now.”
Walker, who took over on Oct. 4, in the wake of Billy Gillispie’s resignation, said he’ll take a “day-by-day” approach as he awaits the decision from the Tech brass.
“I’ve done all I can do to make the case,” Walker said. “But, again, the one thing I am is very appreciative of the opportunity that I received from the university, and I’m very thankful for Kirby for having confidence in me and giving me a chance to prove myself as a coach.
“And, again, my goal was to make sure that I made those guys the best men, the best students and the best players they could be. And I honestly believe that we achieved all three of those things.”